Woman convicted in deadly Pa. collar bomb robbery

ERIE, Pa. (AP) — Barring appeals, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong will spend the rest of her life in federal prison for her conviction in a disjointed and deadly plot that killed a pizza delivery driver who was forced to rob a bank wearing a metal bomb collar that later exploded.

The driver, Brian Wells, of Erie, was 46 when one of two pipe bombs connected to egg timers exploded at the base of his neck — an FBI bomb expert said the other pipe bomb malfunctioned and was thrust away from Wells’ body by the blast on Aug. 28, 2003. Wells’ grisly fate can still be viewed on bootleg news footage on the Internet, and his highly publicized death has spawned a Wikipedia page and countless conspiracy theories belying his previously inconspicuous life. His siblings continue to claim he had no role in the plot and was a purely innocent victim.

The 61-year-old Diehl-Armstrong, who has metastasized breast cancer according to her attorney, is already serving seven to 20 years in prison for pleading guilty but mentally ill to the murder of her live-in boyfriend, James Roden, 45. Another plotter, Kenneth Barnes, 57, is serving 45 years in prison for pleading guilty two years ago to his role, but could have that sentence reduced for testifying against Diehl-Armstrong.

The others are dead: Wells and William Rothstein, a handyman and substitute science teacher who allegedly built the bomb collar. Rothstein unwittingly began the chain of events that helped investigators link Diehl-Armstrong to the collar bomb plot when he called police in September 2003 and told them about a body he was hiding in a freezer in his garage.

The body was Roden’s, who authorities would later determine killed by Diehl-Armstrong 18 days before the collar bomb robbery after threatening to reveal the plan. Rothstein claimed Diehl-Armstrong gave him $75,000 to get rid of the body, but that he balked and called police when she began talking about grinding up the corpse in an ice crusher. At trial, she testified that the “ice crusher” was big enough to crush ice for a cocktail, nothing more, and that Rothstein’s claims were part of a plan to frame her in the collar bomb plot.

Defense attorney Douglas Sughrue tried to convince the jury that convicted Diehl-Armstrong on Monday that her mental disorders — paranoia, bipolar disorder and narcissism — and an allegedly hostile relationship with Barnes made it unlikely she participated in the plot. In bombastic, expletive-filled testimony over two days, Diehl-Armstrong acknowledged knowing Barnes and Rothstein but not Wells — who she claimed she saw the first time during TV news footage of his death — and argued they were framing her.

She sparred with Sughrue throughout the trial and criticized his questions when she testified. After the verdict, she took a parting shot.

The two whispered as Diehl-Armstrong asked Sughrue whether she could keep $1,200 worth of clothes he had purchased for her court appearances, the lawyer said. He told her he would “take care of” it.

“Like you took care of this case that you didn’t do your job on?” she said loudly. “There’ll be an appeal, that’s all I have to say,” she announced before U.S. Marshals led her from the courtroom.

Sughrue said afterward that he had no reaction to the verdict and would continue representing Diehl-Armstrong. Her sentencing is Feb. 28.

The jury deliberated about 12 hours Friday and Monday before convicting Diehl-Armstrong, of Erie, on charges of armed bank robbery that resulted in death, conspiracy, and using a destructive device in a crime of violence. Several hours before the verdict, the jury asked whether they could review FBI reports of interviews with Diehl-Armstrong — a judge said the rules of evidence didn’t allow that — and asked whether any of those interviews was recorded. The jury was told to rely on their recollection.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Piccinini had told the jury Diehl-Armstrong was involved “up to her eyeballs” in the plot, and that her statements to authorities and fellow inmates linked her to it along with the testimony of Barnes and others.

Among other things, Barnes put her at a meeting the day before the heist in which she allegedly tried the bomb collar on Wells to make sure it fit. Barnes said the original plan was to outfit the collar with a fake bomb to scare the bank teller, but that Rothstein had a live device attached to the collar that prompted Wells to balk, before he was forced to wear it after Rothstein fired a warning shot and Barnes punched him in the face.

If, unlike Wells’ family, one believes Barnes, Monday’s verdict was the final piece of a puzzling plot so complicated it seemed to spring from the pages of a Hollywood script.

All parties agree that Brian Wells walked into a PNC bank on Aug. 28, 2003, with a metal collar bomb locked onto his neck. He walked out with $8,702 but was stopped nearby by police, who put him in handcuffs and waited for a bomb squad to arrive. Before it did, the bomb exploded, killing Wells.

His brother, John Wells, 47, of Phoenix, on Friday called the case a “circus show trial” that would bring the family no justice. He didn’t return a call after Monday’s verdict.

In a brief teleconference from Pittsburgh, U.S. Attorney David Hickton said the verdict was the result of “thousands of hours of difficult and painstaking work by our law enforcement partners and this office.”

Diehl-Armstrong’s life sentence is driven by her conviction on the armed bank robbery charge, because the heist resulted in Wells’ death. Prosecutors had the option to pursue the death penalty but didn’t. The destructive device charge carries a 30-year minimum sentence which must run consecutive to others imposed, but because the life sentence carries no chance of parole it’s a cosmetic enhancement in this case.

As to Sughrue’s claim that Rothstein framed Diehl-Armstrong, the jury rejected it and Rothstein isn’t around to comment. He died of cancer in July 2004.

Barnes has claimed Diehl-Armstrong planned the heist because she wanted to use the money to pay Barnes to kill her father. That man, 91-year-old Harold Diehl, of Erie, wasn’t in the courtroom and Sughrue said he is all but incapacitated in a veterans’ home.

The jurors refused to speak as the left the courthouse.

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